Fire captain to meet Trump thanks to lifesaving invention
The Northern Star is an 8-directional electronic compass that helps firefighters maintain their orientation inside fires
By Elizabeth Dohms
EAU CLAIRE, Wis. — A compass that would direct firefighters through unfamiliar and treacherous burning buildings started as a seed of an idea thought up by veteran firefighter Jeff Dykes.
In three years, the Eau Claire fire captain’s idea turned into his own business, Northern Star Fire, which gained international interest and propelled Dykes to the national stage, where today he is one of 100 small-business owners who will participate in a roundtable with President Donald Trump at the White House.
He flies out this morning to greet the president as part of a discussion entitled American Small Business — The Engine of the American Dream — set to take place at 2 p.m. Central time.
“That’s pretty cool stuff,” he said of the invitation. “It’s not every day the president of the United States requests your company.”
Dykes — an employee of the Eau Claire Fire Department since 1999, an instructor for the Wisconsin Technical College System and a paramedic — developed a lighted eight-directional compass that attaches to the inside of a firefighter’s helmet from his own experience battling flames.
“Every structure is a little different,” Dykes said. “If you close your eyes, that’s what you see. If you turn a flashlight on, it makes it worse sometimes. There’s a thousand different things that run through a firefighter’s head.”
And it doesn’t take long to get disoriented, said fire Deputy Chief Jon Schultz.
“When firefighters go into a building, if they can’t see, they’re supposed to follow a wall,” he said. “But things happen, and you get disoriented.”
Another option is to follow their own hoses, but that might not be the quickest way out of the burning building, Dykes said, especially if the hoses are looped.
“This device not only allows us to be safer, but when the chief says I need to go to the back side of the house, I know which way that is,” he said.
After winning the Idea Challenge sponsored by the Eau Claire Area Economic Development Corp., Dykes gained more confidence in his idea, prompting him to hire engineers to work on the product for royalties.
That led to a few more grants and encouragement from others who thought Dykes was on to a great idea.
“When I first heard of Jeff’s invention, I knew instinctively there would be a market for a device that helped public safety workers such as firefighters better navigate risky situations,” said Tom Still, president of the Wisconsin Technology Council, who encouraged Jeff to apply to the Wisconsin Governor’s Business Plan Contest.
Still said Dykes was one of nearly 200 qualified entries in the contest. He took home the grand prize.
“That was a pretty big bump,” Dykes said.
Dykes said that exposure is leading to order placements from China and Europe. He has also been approached by scuba divers and NASA scientists.
“I really give him all the credit in the world for figuring it out,” Schultz said. “He didn’t buckle under from pressure he got from big companies, and it’s paying off for him.”
According to a statement from the Wisconsin Small Business Development Center, which helped Dykes craft a business plan needed for a grant submission, Dykes is currently negotiating a 10,000-compass order.
Fielding calls from the White House on Monday for security checks and information updates, Dykes learned he would be one of five guests given an opportunity to ask Trump a question.
“What advice does he have from his experience to encourage that person who has identified an issue and that solution to take that next step to make our society better?” Dykes said when asked what question he prepared to ask.
Dykes will be joined at the White House by Kristina Pence-Dunow of Hometown Trolley, a business based in Crandon.
While not in production until this fall, compasses can be ordered at Dykes’ website, northernstarfire.com. The compasses can be purchased by anyone, and so far, 100 orders have been filled.
“A lot are buying and donating to local fire departments,” Dykes said of the product, which sells for $129.99.
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